On Understanding Emotion
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On Understanding Emotion

Melvin J. Lasky

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eBook - ePub

On Understanding Emotion

Melvin J. Lasky

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About This Book

Emotions--fleeting, insubstantial, changeable, and ambiguous--seem to defy study and analysis. Nothing is more complex, mysterious, and subject to conflicting theories and interpretations than human emotion. Yet the central importance of emotion in human affairs is undeniable. Emotions affect all levels of life--personal, organizational, political, cultural, economic, and religious. Emotions give meaning to life. Emotional disturbances can destroy that meaning.

How should emotions be studied? How can an understanding of the inner feelings of individuals illuminate important social interactions and human developments? In his book, Norman Denzin presents a systematic, in-depth analysis of emotion that combines new theoretical advances with practical applications. Based on an intensive, critical examination of classical and modern theoretical research--and on revealing personal interviews in which ordinary people express their emotional lives--he builds a new framework for understanding ordinary emotions and emotional disturbances.

Denzin analyzes how people experience joy and pain, love and hate, anger and despair, friendship and alienation--and examines the personal, psychological, social, and cultural aspects of human emotion to provide new perspectives for understanding human experience and social interactions. He offers new insights on the role of emotions in family violence and recommends ways of helping people escape from recurring patterns of violence. And in criticizing current conceptions of emotionally disturbed people, he reveals the nature of their inner lives and the ways they perceive and relate to others. In sum, this book presents new insights on human relationships and human experience. It is now available in paperback for the first time, with a new introduction by the author.

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Part One Differing Views of Emotion

Chapters One and Two of this investigation locate the study of emotion and emotionality within a point of view that is interpretive, phenomenological, and interactionist. These three terms require brief elaboration. Interpretation is the clarification of meaning. It occurs through the process of translating, describing, dissecting, recording, and piecing together the meanings of another’s actions and placing those actions within a meaningful sequence or totality. To interpret is to give meaning to an act, event, or object. A point of view is phenomenological when it attempts to secure the interpretation and understanding of a phenomenon from within. That is, phenomenological inquiry is a return to the thing itself, as Husserl argued so many times. The thing, the phenomenon, is studied as a process in its own right. Inquiry endeavors to reveal and unravel the structures, logic, and interrelationships that obtain in the phenomenon under inspection. The variant and invariant features of the phenomenon are thereby disclosed through successive glimpses, reflections, and analyses. Interactionist study locates the phenomenon of human experience in the world of social interaction. It directs attention to the emergent, conflictual, dialectical, problematic features of ongoing interaction.
To surround the study of emotionality with these three terms is to increase the likelihood that analysis will be grounded in the lived experiences of interacting individuals. Chapter One deconstructs previous theories of emotion, turning principally on the formulations of William James and Sigmund Freud, the two theorists who have dominated the study of emotion in the twentieth-century. By inserting the phenomenological perspective between James and Freud, and by drawing on the symbolic interactionist thought of Mead and Blumer, I offer a conception of emotionality that seems more consistent with the view of human nature that I develop in Part Two.
Critical to this point of view are lessons I take from the classical sociological theorists: The human subject’s emotional experiences are grounded in practical activities taken up in the face of an obdurate social world. The material world is constituted through the ensembles of social relationships that bind subjects to one another. The fields of emotional experience that subjects produce are separate social realities that are layered over or exist alongside the everyday world they take for granted. The subject is connected to and in the world intersubjectively, in a circuit of selfness. The natural emotional attitude is one that takes the experiencing of emotionality for granted. The phenomenological perspective I adopt makes that natural attitude problematic so that these taken-for-granted features of emotionality may be better illuminated.
In Chapter One bits and pieces from a number of theorists are adopted as I lay the foundations for Chapter Two, wherein the topics of emotionality, self, and interaction are brought together in a somewhat formal fashion. I try to steer a course between structuralist, Freudian, psychological, behavioral, evolutionary, and cognitive perspectives while remaining true to Merleau-Ponty’s charge to uncover the essential meaning of emotionality.

One Classical and Contemporary Theories

The philosophical, psychological, psychiatric, sociological, and anthropological traditions that surround and embed contemporary understandings of the emotions run so deep and are still so influential that their effects on any understanding of emotion cannot be overestimated. This chapter is devoted to a discussion of these traditional concepts, understandings, formulations, and theories. It follows Heidegger’s (1975/1982, p. 12) suggestion that the progressive phenomenological understanding of a phenomenon proceeds through a deconstruction of prior theories and formulations. Such an unraveling or unveiling of prior formulations of emotion is necessary if its social phenomenological interpretation is to have solid footing.
The following theories and views of emotion will be reviewed: (1) the James-Lange theory of emotion, (2) the recent psychological formulations of Lazarus, Averill and Opton, Arnold, Singer, Plutchik, Ekman, and Izard, (3) the recent sociological formulations of Kemper, Hochschild, Shott, Scheff, and Collins and the more classic sociological formulations of Marx, Weber, Durkheim, and Simmel, (4) Freud’s model of the emotions, (5) Lacan’s psychoanalytic theory of the Other, speech, desire, and history, (6) Scheff’s theory of emotional catharsis, (7) Sartre’s theory of emotion.
The etymology of the word emotion suggests the following meanings: (1) an agitation of the passions or sensibilities, often involving physiological changes, (2) any strong feeling arising subjectively rather than through conscious mental effort, (3) to excite, to move out, to stir up, to move. The prevailing meaning of emotion in the theories to be reviewed stresses the physiological and nonconscious mental features of emotion. It is necessary to begin with the James-Lange theory of the emotions, for here the physiological position is most forcefully and most clearly stated.

The James-Lange Theory of Emotion

The James-Lange theory of emotion has been the subject of considerable scientific debate since its (1890) publication by William James in Principles of Psychology (see Wundt, 1891; Worcester, 1893; Dewey, 1894, 1895; Irons, 1894; Stratton, 1895; Baldwin, 1894; Mead, 1895, 1982a; Cannon, 1929; Sartre, 1939/1962; Schachter and Singer, 1962; Kemper, 1978b; Scheff, 1979, 1983). Portions of James’s theory were formulated by the Danish psychologist Carl Georg Lange in 1885, and James combined his views with those of Lange. The James-Lange theory offers a physiological accounting of the constitution, organization, and conditioning of the “coarser” emotions such as grief, fear, rage, and love, in which “everyone recognizes strong organic reverberations,” and the subtler “emotions, or those whose organic reverberations [are] less obvious and strong,” such as moral, intellectual, and esthetic feelings (James, 1890/1950, vol. 2, p. 449).
The general causes of the emotions are assumed to be internal, physiological, nervous processes, not mental or psychological processes. Moods, affections, and emotions are “constituted and made up of those bodily changes which we ordinarily call their expression or consequence” (James, 1890/1950, vol. 2, p. 452). A purely disembodied emotion—for example, the emotion of fear without a quickened heartbeat, sharp breathing, or weakened limbs—would be a nonentity for this theory. The emotions are the result of bodily changes that occur as a reflex effect of an exciting object or fact confronted by the person.
An emotional experience follows this sequence: (1) the perception of an exciting fact or object by the person, (2) a bodily expression such as weeping, striking out, or fleeing the situation, (3) a mental affection or emotion, such as feeling afraid or angry. Many theories of emotion, as well as common sense, place the bodily expression of weeping or striking out or fleeing after the emotion of feeling anger or fear. The James-Lange theory alters this sequence, placing bodily expressions between the perception of the exciting fact and the emotion. In everyday terms, we “cry and then feel sad”—not “we feel sad and then cry.” “The bodily changes follow directly the perception of the exciting fact . . . our feeling [them] as they occur is the emotion” (James, 1890/1950, vol. 2, p. 449). This is a physiological-cognitive theory of emotion. Physiological processes, however, take precedence over cognitive states. In the theory, the word emotion refers to “the rank feeling of excitement” that comes from the physiological sensations felt by the person (James, 1894, p. 525).
The debate and criticism that have surrounded the theory involve the following points. Considerable controversy and words have been wasted over whether the James-Lange theory is a centralist, a peripheral, a specificity, or an antispecificity theory of emotion. Rather than placing the critics of the theory (or the theory itself) into these categories, I shall avoid labels and treat each critic in turn, regardless of classification. First, Wundt (1891) argued that James gave insufficient attention to the fact that emotions intensify and develop as they are experienced. Second, Irons (1894, 1895) argued that the theory did not deal with the place of the self and subjective feelings in the experiencing of emotion. He stated: “Not the mere object as such is what determines the physical effects, but the subjective feeling toward the object” (1894, p. 78). Irons further stated that the theory did not belong to psychology because it ignored the self and its unity. Third, Worcester (1893) suggested that the theory did not have a place for self-feelings and emotional reactions of the self. He proposed the term feeling-attitude for these feelings. Fourth, Baldwin (1894, pp. 610–623), who termed the James-Lange theory a peripheral theory of the emotions, suggested that the “coarser” emotions the theory dealt with were phenomena of instinct. Many of the emotions the theory’s critics focused on were learned emotions that emerge during a child’s moral, social, and intellectual development. It is true that the original theory drew heavily on Darwin’s works (1859, 1872/1955) and did not satisfactorily treat the “subtle” emotions. Anger, fear, and rage were primary emotions discussed by James. Baldwin’s point was well taken.
James’s responses to these criticisms were to sharpen his conception of the physiological meanings of the term emotion and admit into his formulations a broader interpretive stance on the part of the person experiencing an emotion. He stated: “Such organic sensations being also presumably due to incoming currents, the result is that the whole of my consciousness (whatever its inner contrasts be) seems to me to be outwardly mediated by these [physiological sensations]” (1894, pp. 523–524). He did not develop Dewey’s position, discussed next, that emotion is an inhibition to acting habitually.
Fifth, John Dewey (1894, 1895), elaborating Baldwin’s Darwinian observation, proposed the following conception of emotion: “Certain movements, formerly useful in themselves, become reduced to tendencies to action, to attitudes. As such they serve, when instinctively aroused into actions, as means for realizing ends. But so far as there is difficulty in adjusting the organic activity represented by the attitude with that which stands for the idea or end, there is a temporary struggle and partial inhibition. This is reported as affect, or emotional seizure. Let the coordination be effected in one act, instead of in a successive series of mutually exclusive stimuli, and we have interest. Let such coordinations become thoroughly habitual and hereditary, and we have Gefuhlston [emotional disturbance or affect]” (1895, p. 32).
Sixth, G. H. Mead, whose fuller reactions to the James-Lange theory have only just become available, developed Dewey’s modification of the theory as follows: “The point of view of Dewey assumes that the emotion as such arises through the inhibition of a tendency to act. There is of course an affective side of all consciousness, but this does not appear as an emotion unless there is an inhibition of a tendency to act. ... If the emotion is to be regarded as a function of inhibition, we cannot accept Wundt’s theory or the James-Lange theory. The clenching of the fist does not cause the emotion, but the inhibition of the act of striking does produce the emotion” (Mead, 1982a, p. 40). In his brief comment on James’s theory in 1895, Mead (1895, pp. 162–164) basically supported James’s formulations but drew attention to the inhibition to response that occurs on perception of the exciting fact. Thus, and most important, Dewey and Mead insert an inhibitory phase between stimulus and reaction.
Seventh, Cannon (1929) argued that the thalamic neurons are the cause of the emotions. The thalamic theory of the emotions modifies the James-Lange theory by asserting:
An external situation stimulates receptors and the consequent excitation starts impulses toward the cortex. Arrival of the impulses towards the cortex is associated with conditioned processes which determine the direction of the response. Either because the response is initiated in a certain mode or figure and the cortical neurons therefore stimulate the thalamic processes, or because on their inward course the impulses from the receptors excite thalamic processes, they are roused and ready for discharge. That the thalamic neurons act in a special combination in a given emotional expression is proved by the reaction patterns typical of the several affective states. These neurons do not require detailed innervation from above in order to be driven into action. Being released for action is a primary condition for their service to the body—they then discharge precipitately and intensely. . . . The theory which naturally presents itself is that the peculiar quality of the emotion is added to simple sensation when the thalamic processes are roused [Cannon, 1929, p. 200].
Eighth, in a study now regarded as near classic, in which some subjects were injected with epinephrine and others with an inert substance, Schachter and Singer (1962) argued that “an emotional state may be considered a state of physiological arousal and of a cognition appropriate to this state of arousal. ... It is the cognition that determines whether the state of physiological arousal will be labeled as ‘anger,’ ‘joy,’ or whatever” (p. 380). This formulation significantly modified James’s theory. The experiment designed to test this hypothesis has been subjected to considerable interpretation and criticism. The findings appear to be inconclusive (Kemper, 1978b, pp. 166–187; Scheff, 1979, pp. 92–100).
Ninth, Jean-Paul Sartre (1939/1962) critically evaluated the James-Lange theory from a phenomenological perspective and rejected it on the following grounds. First, behavior, physiological or expressive, is not emotion, nor is the awareness of that behavior emotion. Second, the body does not call out its own interpretations, which are given in the field of consciousness of the person. Third, the bodily disturbances present in emotion are disorders of the most ordinary kind but are not the causes of emotion. They ratify the existence of emotion for the person; they give emotion its believability. Fourth, to consider only the biological body, as the James-Lange theory does, independent of the lived body, and the person’s consciousness of his or her body as the source of his or her emotion, is to treat the body as a thing and to locate emotion in disorders of the body (Plessner, 1970; Meinong, 1972). Emotion as a part of the person’s lived experiences in the lifeworld has not yet been given adequate attention by either the critics or the followers of the James-Lange theory (see Scheler, 1916/1973).
The factors isolated in the theory are not disputed. The perception of the sequence of the factors and the emphasis on strictly physiological as opposed to social, psychological, and in teractional processes are the sources of current controversy (see Kemper, 1981). Furthermore, the production of a crucial, incontrovertible experiment that would clarify once and for all the centralist/peripheralist debate is still sought (Scheff, 1983).
Sartre’s critique, which is accepted in this text, would, if adopted, put an end to sociologists’ preoccupation with physiological definitions and formulations of the emotions. Sartre’s work, however, has been largely ignored in the recent literature, as the following discussion will reveal. His criticisms of James apply, as well, to recent theorists who have used James’s definition of emotion.

Recent Psychological Formulations

A number of recent psychological theorists have significantly advanced beyond James’s physiologically grounded theory by emphasizing the cognitive, affective, phenomenological, situational, motivational, and interactional dimensions of emotion and emotionality. Candland (1977, pp. 1–85) provides an extremely useful review and statement of these theories, as do Izard (1977), Arnold (1970), and Plutchik (1962, 1977). Arnold’s theory, which is cognitive, interpretive, and phenomenological, stresses the individual’s active appraisal of a social situation as an emotional line of action is built up toward a social object. Her theory has certain similarities to Meinong’s (1972) theory of emotional presentation. Arnold suggests that a sequence of emotional experience begins with appraisal and interpretation, Meinong proposes that an emotional field of experience presents itself to the person as a situation to be lived through and given meaning. In this sense emotions exist ahead of the person, as fields of experience that must be constructed. Plessner (1970), Strasser (1963, 1970), Binswanger (1963), Giorgi (1970), and Schmalenbach (1977), in more fully developed phenomenological statements, have made similar arguments, as have Airport (1955), Kelly (1955), May (1958), Rogers (1961), Smith (1974), Harré and Secord (1973), Icheiser (1970), and Riezler (1950).
Averill, Opton, and Lazarus (1969), Lazarus and Averill (1972), and Averill (1980) have developed a model of emotion that is quite close to Arnold’s appraisal theory. They assume a threefold emotional response system that elaborates Dewey’s (1895) suggestion that an inhibition of action occurs between stimulus and response and that inhibition may redefine the stimulus. First, emotional responses may serve as stimuli that contribute to an emotional experience. The emotional response system they develop suggests, second, that emotions are social constructions (Averill, 1980, p. 38) that are shaped by primary and secondary appraisal processes, which operate within the human brain and the individual’s sociocultural system. The third element of the emotional response system consists of cognitive, expressive, and instrumental responses to the emotional stimulus situation.
Izard (1977) develops an interactional-motivational theory of emotionality that incorporates physiological processes into the personality system. Termed the “differential emotions theory,” Izard’s formulation suggests that emotions interact, so that one emotion may “activate, amplify, or attenuate another” (Izard, 1977, p. 43). This model suggests comparisons with Plutchik’s, which combines an evolutionary model of human development with a differentiation of what Plutchik terms the primary emotions (as discussed earlier) into primary, secondary, and tertiary dyadic complexes, or structures. Such a mixed, or interactive, model of the emotions assumes that there are only a small “number of pure or primary emotions” (Plutchik, 1962, p. 41). Ekman’s (1973, 1980) investigations indicate that certain emotions, those termed primary or fundamental by Izard (1977), have the same expressions and experiential qualities in “widely different cultures from virtually every continent on the globe, including preliterate cultures having had virtually no contact with Western civilization” (Izard, 1977, p. 6). The expressions, or languages, of emotion as given in the human face and in nonverbal communication appear to be universal (Darwin, 1872/1955; Ekman, 1973, p. 259). A further elaboration of the cognitive and affective approach to emotions is given in Singer’s (1973, 1974) and Tomkins’s (1962, 1963) works, which stress the importance of fantasy processes, dreams, and imagery in the person’s emotional and motivational system. These theorists, with Izard (1977) and Mowrer (1960), assume that emotions constitute the primary motivational system for human beings (Izard, 1977, p. 38).
These psychological formulations have importance for the perspective developed in this book. They bring emotions out of the unconscious into the conscious world of the person. They situate emotions in the social and cultural world. They speak to the universal modes and forms...

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